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Amid Raleigh wrangling, ‘the clock ran out’ on Lake Junaluska merger bill

fr mergerbillAny day now. 

That’s what Robbie Inman has been telling himself for weeks as he cruises Raleigh news sites, trying to cipher out when an end to the budget logjam in the General Assembly would end.

Inman, the election director for Haywood County, would normally have ballots on their way to the printers by now in preparation for the four town elections happening around the county this fall.

But Inman’s been holding off, waiting to see if the General Assembly would sign off on a merger of Lake Junaluska with the town of Waynesville, contingent on approval by voters in November.

A bill has passed the Senate calling for a special election on the merger, but the issue has been in limbo in the House. Last week, Inman had a tough decision to make: whether to start readying the ballots without the Lake Junaluska merger on them.

“There comes a time I have to make a decision, and the clock has run out to wait. I don’t have a choice,” Inman said last Friday. “I have to move forward.”

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There’s no state hotline to call for a prediction of what the General Assembly will do tomorrow, so all Inman could do was watch and read and call and email, gathering insight any way he could, hoping an answer would materialize.

Inman thinks as long as the budget standoff is still brewing, it is unlikely any other business would be taken up in the General Assembly, so it was time to fish or cut bait.

“We knew that was coming at some point in time,” Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown said. “He has to say, ‘I can’t do this at this point’ even if the state legislature says ‘Here it is.’”

Brown said the window for public forums and education on the issue is narrowing as well.

“My intent was always to have several months for the people in Waynesville and Lake Junaulska to be able to look at the issue. It’s just getting shorter and shorter,” Brown said.

While early voting in town elections doesn’t start until Oct. 24, there’s much to be done before then.

Although most voters cast their ballots at a touchscreen computer terminal — which local election staff can program in-house — there are still paper ballots to be printed.

Any voter can request a paper ballot to be mailed to them, be it the elderly, disabled or people away on travel. By law, Inman must have the paper ballots ready 30 days before the election.

The ballots can’t be done in-house, but have to go through a single authorized contractor in the state for coding, formatting and printing. 

Inman had to get the that process underway this week, to allow for the necessary round of proofreading at each juncture with the contractor.

 “It is constant. You don’t just look at it one time,” Inman said. “It has to be right. This one question can’t stop the process for the other municipalities.”

Overseas ballots for those in active military service are yet another beast. They have to be prepared and sent via email far enough in advance for soldiers who don’t have regular access to computers to get them, fill them out, and send them back in.

Inman had already set the stage for the special election, ready to pull the trigger if state lawmakers gave the go-ahead. The legwork was too involved to take a wait-and-see approach. Should the ballot measure be approved, Inman had to be ready.

The merger election was going to be two-fold: to pass, it had to be approved both by voters in the town limits and at Lake Junaluska.

If either set of voters turned it down, it wouldn’t pass.

Putting the question to town voters wouldn’t be all that tricky, since they were going to the polls anyway in November for a mayor and town board race. It was merely a matter of adding an extra question to the ballot.

But posing the question to Lake Junaluska voters was more complicated. First of all, Inman had to figure out who exactly those voters were.

The most critical step was creating a database of registered voters within the Lake Junaluska merger area. With the help of county mapping staff, a special voting jurisdiction was fashioned based on “the metes and bounds of the original bill in the Senate,” Inman said.

Inman also hoped to allow a public vetting window for the list of eligible voters in the special Lake Junaluska polling district, allowing time for people who disagreed with was or wasn’t on the list a chance to appeal.

“I did this all early on. I was trying to be proactive,” Inman said.

Now that ballots are already in the pipeline minus the merger question, Inman isn’t sure what would happen if the General Assembly approves it at this 11th hour.

“What is going to be the protocol and procedure if the General Assembly was to pass this at a later date? That is the answer that I am waiting for,” Inman said.

Inman said he would obviously comply with any legislation passed by the General Assembly.

“Yes, it could be possible, but the procedures and protocal for how to go about that is going to have to come as a directive to me from the state board of elections,” Inman said. As a “last resort,” a second supplemental ballot could be printed as an addendum.

In another couple of weeks, even that wouldn’t be an option, however.

“This is an important question and one people have worked on an very long time, but there comes a time when I have to move forward,” Inman said. 

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